April 2009 Up Front

Peanut recall causes concern for schools

Amid worries about budgets and questions about the economic stimulus plan, school officials have been confronted with a topic that resonates with almost every parent and staff member: Is peanut butter safe for my kids to eat?

The safety of the school lunch staple has been called into question following a widespread salmonella outbreak that was linked to nine deaths in January and February. More than  the Georgia-based the Peanut Corp. of America have been recalled, including a number that were shipped to schools since Jan. 1, 2007.

The recall, one of the largest in U.S. history, has left more than 600 people ill from Salmonella Typhimurium. Peanut Corp. of America, which has since filed for bankruptcy and is facing a criminal investigation, made products such as peanut butter and  peanut paste that are commonly found in cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream, pet treats, and other foods. The major national brands of jarred peanut butter, such as Jif and Skippy, have not been affected.

No illnesses have been tied directly to districts that received the products through the National School Lunch Program. However, schools in California, Michigan, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Texas, among others, pulled products from their shelves after the voluntary recall was announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“The current Salmonella outbreak that is tied to certain peanut butter products is another reminder that school policies and practices must be in place to prevent and respond to foodborne illness,” says Brenda Z. Greene, school health director for the National School Boards Association. “In addition to food storage and preparation, that includes accurate recordkeeping about product sources and uses, monitoring of student and staff illnesses, and effective crisis communications.”

In the most peanut outbreak, the schools hardest hit were Minnesota, where more than 2.5 tons of recalled peanuts were found in their inventories. That news outraged Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“When we send our kids to school, we expect them to be safe,” said Klobuchar, noting that she wants answers about the National School Lunch Program’s safeguards. “No parent should have to fear for their child’s safety because of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Considering the vulnerable population served by the National School Lunch Program, there is no room for error when it comes to making sure that foods in school are absolutely safe.”

A number of schools and districts restrict or refuse to use peanut products in meals due to the potential for allergic reactions among students. In Hawaii, for example, school breakfast and lunch menus have not included peanut-based products for more than two years.

Donnie Whitten, superintendent of the Arkadelphia School District in Arkansas, said his district does not use peanut products in its school meals due to the potential for allergic reactions among students. Whitten said students who bring peanut butter products to school are placed away from students who have the allergies.

“We have not had any problems with peanut butter,” Whitten said. “We do not use peanut butter products or any products with peanut oil.”

The most recent salmonella outbreak, coming on the heels of the recall of tomatoes, peppers, and spinach in recent years, is expected to result in more regulatory powers being granted to the FDA. For example, the FDA can’t mandate food recalls under current law; all recalls are voluntary. Food producers also are not required to re-register with the agency, which makes inspections sporadic.

Stephen Sunlof, director of the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said during a Congressional hearing that the outbreak highlights a number of shortcomings with our nation’s food safety systems.”

“A good day at the FDA is when avoidable outbreaks don’t occur,” Sunlof said. “And that did not happen here.”

 Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

For more information

The National School Boards Association published a policy guide on foodborne illness in 2007. Eating Safely at School can be downloaded at www.nsba.org/SchoolHealth.

To help consumers identify affected products, the Food and Drug Administration has initiated a searchable database of recalled products that is updated daily or as additional recalls are identified. The database is at www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/peanutbutterrecall/index.cfm.

Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Access for all
In Port Washington, N.Y., high school students with solid but not outstanding grades get access to top academic and extracurricular programs. In an effort to reach children caught “in the middle,” the school district has expanded its Advanced Placement offerings and now refuses to cut students from orchestra, band, and sports based on ability alone. Since 2002, the number of AP exams taken by students has nearly doubled, and the average score has climbed, too. More students also are being accepted into four-year colleges.

Book club fracas
Scholastic Inc., has come under fire from a Boston-based advocacy group that says the children’s book publisher is using its school book clubs to push toys, video games, and jewelry kits. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, more than 30 percent of the items sold by Scholastic in its classroom clubs were not books. Scholastic, which estimates that more than 75 percent of all elementaryschool teachers take part in the clubs, is sticking to its guns, with a company official saying the books are sold with other items to help engage children in reading.

Bus service cut
In some school districts, budgets have become so tight that providing bus transportation has become an issue. In Ohio’s Little Miami school district outside Cincinnati, the school district has eliminated bus service for the second time in four years for high school students. The district tried to avoid $2.1 million in budget cuts and layoffs with a levy last fall, but voters rejected a 1 percent earned income tax. Another levy vote is scheduled for May.

Charter overhaul
Minnesota, the first state to pass charter school legislation in 1991, is expected to overhaul the way the 153 campuses are monitored and regulated. Expected are tighter controls, more oversight, and more training for teachers and board members who serve the 30,000 students attending charters in the state. The reasons for the overhaul are not surprising: Problems with low student performance and budgeting, conflicts of interest, and charges of violating the separation of church and state.

Character education
The Virtues Project, another program that started in the early 1990s, is picking up steam in public schools. The character education initiative has been used by businesses, organizations, and schools in more than 90 countries, and is finding success in Baltimore County, Md., where it is cited for improving school climate, student learning, and teacher effectiveness.

Closing costs
How much can closing a school save and potentially cost? In Seattle, school officials debating the closing of five schools and moving all or part of eight others are worried that the savings could be offset by declines in revenue if students leave the district. In 2006, after closing several schools, 20 percent of the affected students left and took $880,000 in state funding with them. The district, however, was expected to move ahead with the closings, with officials saying they could save $16.4 million over a number of years.

Football head trauma
In late January, researchers at Boston University made a scary discovery: The brain of a recently deceased 18-year-old football player showed early signs of an incurable disease caused by repetitive head trauma that results in concussions. No scientists had previously documented the disease in a football player younger than 36. The discovery, combined with brain research prompted by the deaths of seven NFL players ages 36 to 50, could lead to additional precautions and more stringent requirements for youth football players. 

Is cursive disappearing?
What is happening to the flowing curves and fancy loops that elementary students make when they learn to write in cursive? Parents, teachers, and administrators are worried that classic penmanship is disappearing due to test preparations and the rise of the Internet. But a 2007 Vanderbilt University study on handwriting instruction shows that cursive still is widely taught in public and private elementary schools, with 90 percent of teachers saying their schools required handwriting instruction. Still, that has not stopped some from questioning whether handwriting will become a lost art.

Ring those bells
What time should school start for teenagers, especially when research shows that older students benefit from more sleep? That’s a dilemma facing Virginia’s Fairfax County Schools, who are considering whether to reroute buses and change start times for 169,000 students. Under the proposal, middle school and high school students would start as much as an hour later, while times for elementary students would fluctuate. Several districts have pushed back the start times over the past decade, but many have opted out, saying changes would be too costly and/or disruptive.

Selling school buildings
Despite tumbling enrollment that has forced the district to slate 29 schools for closing, the St. Louis Public Schools refuses to sell the soonto-be-empty buildings to charters. Legislators have asked the district to remove the ban, saying empty buildings will blight neighborhoods and noting that the school district is unfairly preventing charters from using public facilities. Eight charters are planning to open in 2010-11, bringing the total to 25 in the city, but six still do not have permanent homes.

Severance to appreciate
In a lean economy, superintendent contracts—especially in the area of benefits— are increasingly coming under scrutiny as the CEOs leave with their final compensation boosted by annuities, bonuses and other perks. In Houston, for example, Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra stands to gain about $1 million when he leaves the district in 2010, based on clauses in his contract that pay him for unused sick, personal, and vacation time. Meanwhile, in Illinois, Niles Township High School Superintendent Neil Codell made $411,500 in salary in 2007-08 and continued to receive his full salary and benefits while in a lesser job for six months after announcing his retirement last June. 

Unconventional fundraisers
Desperate times mean you search for extra money everywhere. Schools in the St. Louis region are selling naming rights for everything from classroom buildings to sports stadiums in an effort to raise additional cash. At least seven area districts have passed or revised policies in the last year to define the limits and specifics of naming rights, which can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for the district. Meanwhile, in Valrico, Fla., school officials are considering plans to build a cell phone tower behind an elementary school in an effort to raise money. Parents have raised concerns about safety, but school officials say they can’t turn down the potential to raise $6,000 to $30,000 in extra revenue each year.

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